Blue Lagoon, Iceland
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Europe's northernmost and westernmost capital is a delightful destination, part old Norse, part modern city, with a quirky personality of its own. The puffin souvenirs found in all the gift stores are an apt mascot for a city with a decidedly playful streak.
More than half of Iceland's population lives there, in one of the world's smallest capital cities -- some 120,000 people. Cruise ships increasingly are paying calls on Reykjavik from late May to early October, especially during the months of June and July, when the daylight literally lasts 'round the clock. Visitors and residents alike seem to stay awake, golfing, strolling the compact town's picturesque streets, drinking Gull beer at sidewalk cafes and cycling along the new seafront promenade.
Many believe that Reykjavik's character is more defined in winter, when daunting weather and 20-hour nights are defied by rollicking pubs and a sense of humor. But, locals laugh at the climate, whether calm or tempestuous. They keep warm in the iconic handsome sweaters for which Iceland is best known; the long hours indoors and out inspire artisans, evidenced by many shops that display lovely local art and clothing.
This is a city that has learned to make the best of things. The Iceland landscape is bare and covered with volcanic rock. With no trees for building houses, 18th-century settlers used driftwood that floated in from the sea, covering the wood in sheets of corrugated tin and painting walls and roofs in vivid colors to brighten the scene. The rock that abounds was turned into material for a fine stone parliament building, erected in 1881. Citizens have planted and nurtured welcome oases of green. The geothermal springs that bubble underground have been put to work to provide hot water for residents.
Iceland -- which, like many other countries, is in the midst of a serious recession, caused by the financial bubbles of the 21st century's first decade -- still has seen much advancement in the past few years. Progress is plain to see in the sleek, contemporary buildings that are changing the cityscape. Several worthwhile museums salute local history and art, and whimsical street murals dot the city center. With fishing as the predominant occupation, restaurants serve up delectable seafood, and gourmet dining of all kinds is plentiful and popular. (One local told me that, because Iceland has no traditional food culture, its young chefs feel far more free to create innovative dishes with a trend toward local products that range from blueberries to lamb.)
But, if you ask natives for their favorite eating place, the answer most often will be a simple hot dog stand near the harbor.
Reykjavik is a clean and safe city, compact and easy to navigate on foot. As charming as it is, no visit to Iceland is complete without getting out into the vast interior, which lies at the city's doorstep.
Cruise lines often assign ships to overnight in Reykjavik, offering passengers more than the typical eight-hour in-port experience, but my greatest regret is that visitors don't have even more time to explore this charming place, where the balance of urban sophistication and nature at its most rugged is unique. Alas, Reykjavik does not enjoy the same variety of flight options as counterparts like Stockholm, Copenhagen and London.
Still, if you regard cruise travel as a chance to sample places you might want to return to later for longer stays, I can't think of a better recommendation than Reykjavik.
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Hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweaters are lovely to look at and are guaranteed to keep you warm! One of the best sources is The Handknitting Association of Iceland (www.handknit.is), with a location on both main shopping streets -- Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur. Also watch for the whimsical knitted hats that are a local trademark.
Icelandic is not an easy language to master; the tricky spelling and pronunciation is said to have changed little since the original Norse settlers spoke it. Luckily for visitors, many signs are in English, and almost everyone speaks English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Iceland's currency is the krona (plural kronur). ATM's offer the best rates and are available at the airport and in many bank locations around town. The Cruise Liner Visitor Centre and the central tourist office also will change money. Credit cards are widely accepted at shops and restaurants. For current krona conversion rates, check www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Where You're Docked
Smaller vessels may dock in the heart of town in the Old Harbor, but most ships will use the cruise dock about two miles from the town center.
Passengers on those ships small enough to dock in the Old Harbor can walk to most sights.
The cruise dock outside the city center offers little to see or do, but the nearby city offers free shuttle service to and from town (a 10-minute ride). Also, the new Cruise Liner Visitor Centre, which is small but very useful, offers money VAT Tax-Free refunds, computer usage and Internet access for a fee, local and long distance phone service, car rentals, a tour-booking service and a nice array of duty-free souvenir gifts.
Free shuttle buses run frequently between the cruise dock and the town center, a 10-minute drive. Cabs also are readily available at the dock and in town at the square in front of the main tourist office. (Most cabs take credit cards.) Reykjavik's main sights are easy to cover on foot.
Watch Out For
Be aware that Icelandic currency is not widely available or accepted outside the country. Be sure to exchange any last kronur at the Cruise Liner Visitor Centre, the central tourist office or a bank before you leave.
The Old Town: Reykjavik's best sight is the city itself. A couple of hours on foot in the old part of the city allows you to experience its unique spirit, the busy harbor, colorful houses, whimsical murals and sculptures, and interesting architecture, old and new. Start at the main tourist office at 2 Adalstraeti, where you can pick up free printed walking guides. The points of interest are easy to find, roughly between the old harbor and the town pond (Tjornin on the map).
Along Tryggvagata, the street beside the harbor, at Posthusstraeti, an enormous mosaic depicts the city's maritime life. Keep strolling to see plaques with photos of old sailing ships, one of the old steam locomotives used to build a harbor railroad and the ultra-modern concert hall rising above the harbor. Head south toward the pond on almost any street, and you'll be in the oldest part of town, passing brightly colored buildings with tin roofs. You never know where you'll encounter an intriguing small gallery, a humorous sculpture or mural. Around the pond are the modernistic City Hall on stilts and the 1881 classic stone Parliament.
If your schedule allows, you can take advantage of the guided, 90-minute walking tours leaving daily at 1 p.m. from May 1 to September 15 from the front of the Tourist Information Center on Adalstraeti. All it will cost you is a tip for the guide.
Hallgrimskirkja Church: Not everyone admires the odd stair-step architecture, but there's no missing this unusual church, named after Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Iceland's largest church, seating more than 1,000, sits at the top of a hill at the end of the shopping street Skolavordustigur. Take the elevator to the tower, which literally towers over the town, for great city views. The concrete form was designed by former state architect Gudjon Samuelsson and was supposedly inspired by volcanic basalt rock formations. On the grounds is a statue of Norwegian-born Leif Ericson, the Viking said to have discovered America 500 years before Columbus. It was a gift from the United States in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the world's oldest Parliament, Iceland's Althing. On some days during the summer months, you may be able to catch a concert at Hallgrimskirkja (usually at noon).
Reykjavik Art Museum: If art is your pleasure, head to the Reykjavik Art Museum (www.artmuseum.is), but there's a catch: The museum is divided into three different locations (all open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for free). The most convenient is Hafnarhus (Tryggvagata 17), the contemporary art museum, housed in a former warehouse across the street from the old harbor. A special gallery there is devoted to the large, comic book-style paintings donated by the Iceland-born artist Erro. The other two sites are short cab rides from the cruise dock or town center. Kjarvalsstadir (in Miklatun Park) is the oldest and largest, housing paintings and sculpture by well-established artists. The Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum and Park (Sigtun) resides in a striking, contemporary, domed building and is named for the sculptor who designed the edifice and whose work is featured inside.
History Museums: If you'd like to immerse yourself in Iceland's history and culture, you've got a few museums from which to choose. If you want to learn more about the country, the National Museum of Iceland (www.natmus.is), near the town pond, will fill you in nicely. The Reykjavík City Museum (www.minjasafnreykjavikur.is), dedicated to the city's past, operates the underground Reykjavik 871+/-2 Settlement Museum (Adalstraeti 160), inspired by the remains of a Viking-age longhouse, circa 930 AD, that was uncovered in 2001. The museum uses multimedia displays, models and artifacts to bring the story of the city's earliest settlers to life.
Shopping: Laugavegur and intersecting Skolavordustigur, the main shopping streets, are well worth strolling even if you don't plan on buying anything. The shops display not only the traditional Nordic sweaters but also the modern design that is an increasing influence in Reykjavik. As you browse, don't forget to look toward the water at cross streets for striking views and more murals in unexpected places.
Iceland's Golden Circle tour offers a chance to explore the island's raw and rugged interior. The trio of sites includes the Strokkur Geyser, where jets spout anywhere from 60 to 100 feet; the mystically beautiful Gullfoss (or Golden) Falls, Europe's largest waterfall, tumbling into a glacial river with a 105-foot double cascade; and Thingvellir, a scenic national park that marks where Europe's first Parliament, the Althing, was formed in 930 AD. Your best bet is to book a tour, whether through your cruise line or via an independent company.
The Blue Lagoon: Located about 40 minutes from downtown, the Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com) is one of Iceland's most popular destinations. Steaming, mineral-rich hot water from far beneath the earth forms this spectacular manmade lagoon, amid a rugged lava landscape. A health spa also offers mudpacks and massages. The lagoon's geothermal water is believed to be beneficial for everything from skin problems to arthritis. Keep in mind that, while the Blue Lagoon is well worth a visit, you probably won't have time to enjoy the hot waters and explore the city of Reykjavik.
Been There, Done That
Thermal Pools: Reykjavik is famous for its steamy geothermal swimming pools, fed by underground springs. The biggest and best-known is the Laugardalslaug (Sundlaugavegur 30a, 411-5100), with both indoor and outdoor pools, plus "hot pots" and a thermal steam bath for those who really like it hot. Take a cab or the #14 bus. The pool is part of Laugardalur (553 8870), the city's largest park, where you can easily spend a rewarding day. The park includes botanic gardens -- showing off local plant life and great displays of seasonal flowers -- as well as the city zoo.
The Pearl and Saga Museum: Take a cab or the #18 bus to see two only-in-Iceland sites: The Pearl (www.perlan.is) and the Saga Museum (www.sagamuseum.is). Named for its dome shape, The Pearl is a multi-use building that rests on top of six storage tanks that hold the hot thermal waters that heat the city. Inside the building is the curious Saga Museum, a cafe, shops and an elegant revolving restaurant. The free viewing deck on the fourth floor has a great panoramic view -- for a closer look, try one of the telescopes stationed around the platform. More than 176,000 trees have been planted on the steep hillside, resulting in a woodland setting with cycling and walking paths that are rare for the city.
The Saga Museum re-creates Viking history with eerily lifelike replicas of historical Icelandic figures, based on descriptions found in the old Icelandic sagas. For an authentic ambience, a soundtrack of bloody Viking axe fights plays in the background. A short movie at the end of the tour tells you how the figures were made. Fun fact: Local residents served as models for some of the figures.
Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum: Operated by Reykjavik City Museum, Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum (www.minjasafnreykjavikur.is) is a period farm turned into an open-air museum with more than 20 buildings forming a town square, a village and a farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik. Craftspeople demonstrate traditional farm-life crafts and chores. Although it's located in a suburb of Reykjavik, the museum is easily accessible. Take bus #19 from Hlemmer, the main bus station on Laugavegur, and ask to get off at Strengur, a quick walk from the museum.
Puffin Tours: Boat tours take visitors past the Puffin Islands, where thousands of these adorable birds are found in mating season. Puffin Express (www.puffinexpress.is) has tours to the islands of Akurey and Lundey, from May 1 to August 20, using small boats that bring you close to shore.
From gourmet food to simple meals, Reykjavik has something for every taste and budget. Seafood and lamb are the stars of Icelandic menus. Fish is right-off-the-boat fresh. Cod is the most popular choice, though haddock, Arctic char, halibut, salmon and monkfish are also common. The locally raised lamb has been allowed to range freely and feed on grasses and bushes that have never known chemicals, giving the meat a distinctive flavor, which slightly resembles that of wild game.
Cheap and chic: Two of the city's hottest nighttime venues are perfect stops for an affordable lunch. The former private chef of Iceland-born pop singer Bjork presides over the upstairs dining room at Segurmo at Boston (Laugavegur 28, upstairs, 354-517-7816); it's been a hot spot since it opened in 2009. Segurmo offers a simple, reasonably priced lunch menu with a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian options, as well as plokkfiskur -- traditional Icelandic fish stew, accompanied with sweet rye bread and butter. Cafe Mokka (Skolavordustigu) is Reykjavik's classic coffee bar. Vegamot (www.vegamot.is), conveniently set on a little street between Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (the two main shopping streets), is a buzzing bar and club at night. But, it's also a great stop by day, featuring salads, sandwiches and gourmet pizzas, as well as full meals. On sunny days, the outside garden is packed.
Convenient: Geysir Bistro (www.geysirbistrobar.is), next to the main tourist office -- and right across from the cruise shuttle drop-off spot -- is a pleasant cafe with well-priced prix fixe lunches that include soup and coffee.
Classic seafood: Vio Tjornina (www.vidtjornina.is), whose name means "by the lake," offers a cozy, homey setting with a bit of kitsch -- hanging lamps over the tables, embroidered tablecloths, hand-carved chairs. Local cod is a specialty served many ways; the marinated cod cheeks taste much better than they sound. The restaurant is near Reykjavik's city lake, and the staff will give you a bag of bread crumbs before you leave for feeding the ducks. On nice afternoons and evenings (lunch on weekdays, dinner daily), the Fish Cellar's outdoor subterranean patio is charming and fun, and the food is fresh and fusion-inspired, using local ingredients. (The restaurant's interior is very cozy on dark days.) The Fish Cellar is located right at the shuttle drop-off spot.
A special splurge: With stunning modern decor in Reykjavik's oldest cellar, Sjavarkjallarinn (www.sjavarkjallarinn.is), or "Seafood Cellar," is the almost unanimous choice for the city's top dining. Its fusion cuisine means creative preparation and unexpected ingredient combinations that make the most of the city's best fresh seafood. Try the salmon with truffles, cod seasoned with coriander or haddock with artichokes.
Hot dogs: Icelanders are crazy about hot dogs, and the place to find out why is a simple stand near the harbor called Baejarins Veztu Pylsur (literally means "best hot dog in town," and we have to say: it's mighty fine), a standby since 1937. Look for it on Tryggvagata, just east of Posthusstraeti. (Head toward the Radisson Blu 1919 hotel in the old town, and look for a line of people!) To sample a hot dog the way the natives like it, order it with everything -- sweet mustard, fried onion and a remoulade sauce. It will set you back about $2.
Staying in Touch
The Cruise Liner Visitor Centre offers computers and is a Wi-Fi hot spot. Access is also available at the Tourist Information Centre at 2 Adalstraeti and at all branches of the City Library. If you prefer an Internet Cafe, Top Shop (Laekjargata 2A, near the city lake) is a convenient choice.
Best for First-Timers: The half-day "Reykjavik City Drive, The Pearl & Blue Lagoon" tour takes in some of the area's most iconic sites. Start by driving across lava fields on the way to the Blue Lagoon, where the geothermal waters are said to have therapeutic properties. Then, return to the city, where you'll visit The Pearl for a 360-degree panoramic view. The tour will also drive past many of the city's key sites. (Note: This tour does not allow time for swimming in the Blue Lagoon; if you're keen on taking a dip, opt for the "Swim in the Blue Lagoon" tour instead.)
Best for Scenery: The aforementioned "Best of the Golden Circle" tour is an all-day sampler of Iceland's top wonders. Visit either the Strokkur Geyser, where jets spout anywhere from 60 to 100 feet, or the spectacular but unreliable Geysir. Other stops include the Gullfoss (or Golden) Falls, Europe's largest waterfall, which tumbles into a glacial river with a 105-foot double cascade, and Thingvellir, a scenic national park marking where Europe's first Parliament, the Althing, was formed in 930 AD. Lunch may feature a typical Icelandic meal.
Best for Animal-Lovers: The ocean around Reykjavik is a natural habitat for many types of whales, as well as dolphins and seals, and you can take a half-day "Whale Watching Experience" tour to see these water mammals. Keep a lookout for Blue, Fin, Humpback, Sei and Minke whales.
Best for True Adventurers: Go off the beaten path -- and we mean way, way off -- on an exploration of Iceland's interior, via Super Jeep. Not for the delicate, the three-hour drive -- through rivers, up mountains, on pathways paved with lava streams and via tiny lanes that run beside super-tech electrical plants -- offers an amazing glimpse at the really raw and rugged Iceland (and not just the pretty spots).
For More Information
Visit Reykjavik and Tourist Information Center: www.visitreykjavik.is, Adalstraeti 2, +354 590 1550
Icelandic Tourist Board in the U.S.: www.visiticeland.com, 212-885-9700
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Northern Europe
Independent Traveler Forums: Iceland
--by Eleanor Berman, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief